24 January 2012
“America is coming apart.”
So begins a blistering editorial by Charles Murray in The Wall Street Journal last Saturday (Jan. 21).
And if you think that sounds alarmist, wait till you hear the rest of what he has to say.
Murray, a political scientist now with the American Enterprise Institute, has been a stimulating if controversial presence on the American public-policy scene for three decades. His new essay is entitled “The New American Divide,” and it summarizes some of the main findings of his latest book, Coming Apart (Crown Forum, 2012), scheduled to be released next week.
A lot of people realize that all is not right with our country, and that things have got to change. But what is remarkable about Professor Murray’s new essay is the calm yet relentless way in which he marshals his facts to persuade you that he has put his finger on the crux of the problem.
It is one of those pieces that are so well done I am tempted to reproduce the whole thing here. But since that would be pointless, I will just present the main points, interspersed with highlights from the text.
In a nutshell, Murray argues that the growing malaise felt on both the right and the left has nothing to do with the 99% vs. the 1%. He views this Occupy Wall Street analysis as completely mistaken. Rather, he believes the problem lies in a very different sort of divide, which has more to do with culture than economics.
To back up his view of the problem, Murray turns to statistics. And to make the statistics more palatable, he reports them in terms of two archetypal communities, which he calls “Belmont” and “Fishtown.”*
Here are the demographic characteristics of Murray’s two statistically representative, fictitious communities:
To be assigned to Belmont, the people in the statistical nationwide databases on which I am drawing must have at least a bachelor’s degree and work as a manager, physician, attorney, engineer, architect, scientist, college professor or content producer in the media. To be assigned to Fishtown, they must have no academic degree higher than a high-school diploma. If they work, it must be in a blue-collar job, a low-skill service job such as cashier, or a low-skill white-collar job such as mail clerk or receptionist.
People who qualify for my Belmont constitute about 20% of the white population of the U.S., ages 30 to 49. People who qualify for my Fishtown constitute about 30% of the white population of the U.S., ages 30 to 49.
The reason why Murray specifies that the populations of both Belmont and Fishtown are white is that he wants to demonstrate that race has nothing to do with the cultural divide he is diagnosing. By concentrating on statistics for the white population only, he can eliminate race as a confounding factor.
He also controls for changing trends in marriage and retirement age by focusing on the 30–49 age bracket. These are what he calls “prime-age adults”—those in their prime years with respect to participation in the workforce, having already completed their education and settled down, but not yet in declining health.
After he has defined the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of Belmont and Fishtwon, Murray next turns to an analysis of their cultural characteristics. What he finds is shocking.
By meticulously deploying statistics, Murray shows that Belmont and Fishtown diverge dramatically with respect to five crucial cultural indicators: marriage, single-parenthood, industriousness/idleness, crime, and religiosity/secularism.
His key findings are contained in this graph, which is too large to reproduce here. But here are the highlights:
- Marriage: Over the past 50 years, the marriage rate declined by 25% more in Fishtown than in Belmont.
- Single-parenthood: Over the past 40 years, the rate of out-of-wedlock births increased by over 30% more in Fishtown than in Belmont.
- Industriousness/Idleness: Over the past 50 years, the rate of those reporting they are “out of the workforce” quadrupled from 3% to 12% in Fishtown, while remaining essentially steady at the lower figure in Belmont.
- Crime: Though it has declined somewhat from a highpoint in the 1990s, the violent crime rate in Fishtown is still nearly five times greater than it was 50 years ago, while in Belmont the rate is essentially unchanged.
- Religiosity/Secularism: Over the past 40 years, the percentage of families attending religious services no more than once a year rose by 21 points in Fishtown (to 59% of the population), as opposed to 11 points in Belmont (to 40% of the population).
In summary, Murray demonstrates that Fishtown and Belmont are rapidly evolving into two very different cultural worlds, with quite distinct sets of moral values.
Perhaps the most interesting finding is the one showing that Belmont is actually less secularized than Fishtown—a fact which flies in the face of the liberal stereotype of Fishtown folks “clinging to guns or religion.”
What does Murray say is the reason for these alarming trends? He faults the welfare legislation of the 1960s, in part, but goes on to acknowledge a number of factors, many of which are beyond anyone’s control:
. . . the formation of the new upper class has been driven by forces that are nobody’s fault and resist manipulation. The economic value of brains in the marketplace will continue to increase no matter what, and the most successful of each generation will tend to marry each other no matter what. As a result, the most successful Americans will continue to trend toward consolidation and isolation as a class. Changes in marginal tax rates on the wealthy won’t make a difference. Increasing scholarships for working-class children won’t make a difference.
But if Murray’s analysis is unblinking, it is not wholly bleak. He does believe something can be done—just not by the government:
The only thing that can make a difference is the recognition among Americans of all classes that a problem of cultural inequality exists and that something has to be done about it. That “something” has nothing to do with new government programs or regulations. Public policy has certainly affected the culture, unfortunately, but unintended consequences have been as grimly inevitable for conservative social engineering as for liberal social engineering.
The “something” that I have in mind has to be defined in terms of individual American families acting in their own interests and the interests of their children. Doing that in Fishtown requires support from outside. There remains a core of civic virtue and involvement in working-class America that could make headway against its problems if the people who are trying to do the right things get the reinforcement they need—not in the form of government assistance, but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold. The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending “nonjudgmentalism.” Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices. . . .
Everyone in the new upper class has the monetary resources to make a wide variety of decisions that determine whether they engage themselves and their children in the rest of America or whether they isolate themselves from it. The only question is which they prefer to do.
Professor Murray ends by asking rhetorically: “But where’s my five-point plan?” In reply, he says:
We’re supposed to trust that large numbers of parents will spontaneously, voluntarily make the right choice for the country by making the right choice for themselves and their children?
Yes, we are, but I don’t think that’s naive. I see too many signs that the trends I’ve described are already worrying a lot of people. If enough Americans look unblinkingly at the nature of the problem, they’ll fix it. One family at a time. For their own sakes. That’s the American way.
As for me, here’s my one-point plan for all of us Belmonters (as I and most of you reading this undoubtedly are):
We should all get Murray’s book when it comes out next week, and study it very carefully.
* These archetypes are based on the real-life tony Boston suburb and blue-collar Philadelphia neighborhood, respectively.